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Our Opinion: Banishing bias & ethical conflicts

September 7, 2006 8:15 AM

It's difficult for most individuals and organizations to own up to past mistakes.

But the News-Press has determined that a number of problems festering in the paper's news-gathering operation and newsroom management over the last years need solving.

The newspaper's top management, for example, has taken legal steps to address alleged threats made to an employee by Michael Todd, the former business editor. Top editors at the time didn't report this complaint of concern about possible threats of workplace violence to the human resources department. Top management suspended Mr. Todd immediately upon learning about the complaint from the employee. Mr. Todd quit before the human resources department completed its investigation.

As noted on Friday, removing the bias from news reporting is a top priority, but the reality is that some of the past editors too often failed readers on this score. An independent survey conducted last year for the News-Press found that 64 percent of News-Press readers believed that reporters project their views into stories and aren't staying neutral. The News-Press is determined to right this situation.

A first step in any newspaper's effort to banish the bias comes with journalists not allowing their own opinions -- whether on a tax increase or environmental protections -- to color their reporting. They must strive for balance so readers don't believe accounts are slanted by personal views.

Another step is to make sure those involved in the production of news don't have a conflict of interest involving the beats they cover. A conflict of interest policy, when enforced, would mean that a reporter couldn't cover the county government's planning department when his or her spouse works there.

Editors also must be vigilant so that there's not even an appearance of a conflict. At times, this hasn't happened.

It is every journalist's ethical duty to remove himself or herself from stories and situations that may mar the newspaper's and their own credibility.

Likewise, policies also should prohibit reporters from accepting gifts, such as freebies or discounted tickets.

For example, gushing accounts from exotic locales typifies some travel journalism, but readers ought to know if the writers came to those opinions because they received perks from the travel industry. Former staff member Barney Brantingham wouldn't answer our questions about any use of discounted or free airplane tickets, luxury accommodations and meals as part of the columns and travel stories he authored for the News-Press.

Travel and other writers will not be allowed to use the News-Press name while benefiting from thousands of dollars in gifts from those businesses hoping to see their names in print.

Readers should expect no less from a newspaper's management than to banish reporter bias, achieve balance in stories and ensure a safe and ethical workplace.